After waiting years for a once-in a lifetime hunt, where should you go this fall? Using the three following sources, I've compiled my list of the top ten deer hunting destinations.
- The annual Whitetail Report from Quality Deer Management Association (QDMA) provides a comprehensive overview of recent harvest trends.
- Dr. Joel Helmer updated his analysis of data from the Boone & Crockett and Pope & Young Clubs to incorporate records from up to 2005.
- As a certified wildlife biologist and experienced hunter, I've been studying whitetail trends for nearly four decades.
In no particular order, here are my top 10 for 2018.
Deep in the Heart
It would be hard to exclude Texas from almost any kind of top 10 whitetail list. Despite being among the higher states in terms of percentage of yearling bucks in the harvest, albeit at a measly 23 percent, it also comes in at number five in terms of highest percentage of 3½-plus bucks in the buck harvest, not to mention first in total antlered buck harvest at 399,487. And that's up from 290,590 the previous year (a 37-percent increase)! Besides, hunting there is a unique experience that's on every true whitetail enthusiast's bucket list. Texas also blows away the competition in terms of antlerless harvest with 322,557 so you may as well bag a freezer filler or two while you're there. If cost is a consideration, look into a management hunt.
Western Oklahoma perpetually makes my list, largely as a personal bias. It doesn't make any of Helmer's lists but does show up in the QDMA report in fourth place (up from fifth last year) for highest percentage of 3½ or older bucks and the lowest percentage of yearling bucks in the harvest. Unlike many midwestern states, it's largely an under-utilized resource. Less pressure means more mature bucks. You'll want to hire a guide, but on well-managed land and under favorable weather conditions, you should see plenty of bucks with a legitimate chance at something really nice if you're will to hold out. OTC licenses and outfitted hunts are reasonably priced.
AR U Sure?
Arkansas doesn't make any of Helmer's lists either, but continues to score high with the QDMA and a fair number of deer hunters. It came in at number one in terms of lowest yearling buck harvest and number two for highest 3½-plus bucks. It also has a pretty robust overall buck kill at 94,794. Archers can hunt nearly five full months, and the statewide bag limit is six deer, including two bucks. It's such a sleeper state I'm not even sure what type of infrastructure there is in terms of guides and outfitters, but there is plenty of public land. Either way, you'll have to do your homework, and a good place to start is at the Game and Fish Commission website.
Over the Rainbow
Kansas is another perennial favorite for a range of reasons. It ranks a somewhat middling 8th for combined B&C and P&Y Whitetails from 1830-2001, 7th from 1980 - 2001, but jumps up to 3rd for P&Y entries from 1980-2001 and 5th as of the 2009-2010 recording period. Meanwhile, it hasn't made the QDMA's list, but only because they didn't provide data. And I can personally attest the quantity and quality of big bucks is remarkable. The toughest part might be passing up 140s and even 150s waiting for something bigger. Licenses are relatively affordable with high odds of drawing. Bowhunters probably have slightly better odds of making the book, but I wouldn't pass up a gun hunt.
Don't Make me IL
Continuing with our "one or the other but not both" trend, Illinois didn't make any of the QDMA's "Top" lists again, but ranks number one for P&Y and combined P&Y and B&Y entries for the 1980-2001 period. And I would imagine it's near the top for more recent years as well. Furthermore, those areas that were hit hard by the 2012 HD outbreak should be fully recovered, and a growing herd always has more, healthier animals. The downside is it's no secret. Outfitted hunts aren't cheap and some areas are over-hunted so again, do your homework. Get several references and contact them.
I Owe A Lot
Just northwest, Iowa too doesn't make the QDMA lists, but nobody cares. It consistently ranks number one or two for trophy book entries. And this is in a state where the locals regular do deer drives, which educates deer, disrupts their natural movement patterns and leads to a higher proportion of younger bucks being shot. It's a lottery state that make take several years to draw in. Odds of drawing are toughest in southeastern and northeastern zones but if you're going to wait you may as well wait for the best.
Ohio is another state where we overlook the books. It doesn't make the QDMA's lists and is middle to low on Helmer's. But all things considered, I believe it offers some of the best potential for a serious eastern whitetail enthusiast looking for a DIY trophy hunt. Over-the-counter licenses are relatively inexpensive and the southeast region contains a good mix of both sizable public lands and smaller private parcels. Obviously, your odds go up significantly hunting on well-managed private land with an outfitter.
Gonna Miss You
Mississippi has very quietly been gaining a reputation as one of the leading southern whitetail states, owing to rich Delta soils as well as a proliferation of conservation-minded sportsmen devoted to the QDM ethic. As a result, it came in number two in terms of lowest yearling buck kill and not for the first time, number one in terms of highest percentage of 3½-plus bucks. Granted, most of the data driving those rankings comes from well-managed private land, but chances are, that's where you'll be hunting. Do a little research and look for areas with the best soils, which promote better antler growth.
Back Door, Man
With very little exception, trophy bucks could occur almost anywhere in good whitetail range and habitat. Clearly, some places are better than others, but hunting locally gives you the decided advantage of being able to spend far more time gaining access then scouting the land and the deer on it. You may have to adjust your expectations based on what's available for your particular area, but the DIY aspect makes any good buck that much more rewarding.
A W is a W
Despite the having the highest percentage of yearlings in the buck harvest and holding the number two spot for lowest percentage of older bucks, and having tremendous hunting pressure, Wisconsin still ranks among the all-time, and recent leaders in terms of trophy buck records. It also dominates the list of top-50 deer hunting counties nationwide with 26 counties, Buffalo being the highest in the nation with 520 entries. OTC licenses and public land hunts offer legitimate odds but I'd still go with an outfitter if I wanted to shorten my odds for a wallhanger.